Carlene O’Neil is the author of the Cypress Cove Mystery series of cozies. This is her debut post for the Blackbird Writers. You can find out more about her on her website www.carleneoneil.com, or by clicking here and buy her books here.
“My sister’s having babies. She married the guy she lost her virginity to. I’m glad she’s having babies. Now I can breathe a little.”
I listen to these few sentences, pure gold to an author. I move closer to hear better. So does half the coffee shop, but the speaker’s done. I’m disappointed, wanting more. Then, before I forget her words, I write them down. I move the words around, fleshing out the speaker. I know she’s somewhere in the coffee shop, but I don’t try to find her. I don’t need to. In my mind she’ll be the one on her phone, sporting spiky dark hair and bright red lipstick. She doesn’t care that her voice carries, pulling in the rest of the diners.
Her sister, the one having babies, also intrigues me. If she were there she would be mortified at her sister’s words. She will be prone to matching sweater sets and French braids, but I don’t have a place for her now. I tuck her away in my notebook for later use. When it comes to my notebook, I don’t judge and I don’t edit. A phrase. A look. Some different setting. It all gets written down, waiting for later. Waiting to be used.
When gathering ideas, authors are like squirrels. We hear a snippet of conversation or a phrase, or perhaps see something or someone, and it stays with us. We snap it up and work away at it, roll it around a bit, wonder if there’s something really there. Why is she glad her sister’s the one having babies? Why can she breathe now? And what about the sister? Is she glad to be the one having babies, or does she yearn for the freedom her sister has?
We are on a constant search for ideas. They can come from anywhere. It’s a story from a movie or the news. A documentary or fable. Overheard snippets in a coffee shop, my favorite. It’s something from a book, or a dream you’ve had. It’s the mundane with a twist; the verdict that left you wondering, the conclusion you didn’t see coming. Often we have no idea where the ideas come from.
Then, unless we use an idea right away, we stash it. The methods vary but the purpose is the same. A file on the computer, a spreadsheet, a simple box where you toss copies of news stories to be re-read in the future. Later, when the ideas don’t come, when the cold spell sets in and we are convinced we aren’t going to find anything worth writing about ever again, we go back and dig out some obscure article, or conversation, or image, something that didn’t quite let us go, and we start again. Of course, we face the same dilemma squirrels do: many of the nuts we’ve buried for future use are lost to us, never to be found again. They don’t quite work out, or don’t really trigger any solid ideas, instead leaving us to ponder why did this piece captured our interest in the first place.
I recently read that squirrels are responsible for the majority of new tress that grow in our forests. They bury nuts and then forget where they are, or just never get around to finding them. That works in the writing process as well. It doesn’t matter what you use, or what you leave behind. A notebook is a roadmap of sorts, leading us back to something that held our attention long enough to write it down.
Who knows where it will lead?